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Enhancing the Reflexivity of System Innovation Projects With System Analyses

Partners' Institution
Södertörn University
van Mierlo, B., Arkesteijn, M., Leeuwis, C., 2010. Enhancing the Reflexivity of System Innovation Projects With System Analyses. American Journal of Evaluation 31, 143–161.
Thematic Area
Development studies
Networks aiming for fundamental changes bring together a variety of actors who are part and parcel of a problematic context. These system innovation projects need to be accompanied by a monitoring and evaluation approach that supports and maintains reflexivity to be able to deal with uncertainties and conflicts while challenging current practices and related institutions. This article reports on experiences with reflexive process monitoring (RPM)—an approach that has been applied in several networks in the Dutch agricultural sector, which strive for sustainable development. Particular attention is paid to conducting system analyses—a core element of the methodology. The first results show that system analyses indeed have the potential to enhance reflexivity if carried out collectively. However, regular patterns of thinking and acting within projects interfere in subtle ways with the new knowledge generated and limit the transformation of the reflexive feedback and insights into action.
Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
Reflexivity and learning are crucial functions when it comes to change or innovation in social systems. The ways that actors engage in joint activities that enhances their knowledge about the system and its environment can make systems innovation possible. In this article, a framework for reflexive process monitoring (RPM) is proposed.

The RPM starts from the assumption that second order learning is required for inducing systemic changes. Second order learning changes the way that the engaged actors perceive the system and opportunities for systemic changes. This is opposed to first order learning that relates to learning about changes within the details of the system taking knowledge about the system as given.

The monitoring process uses a matrix where one axis shows the system actors and the shows features of the system The actors are then discussing where system imperfections may occur and ideas on how to change it. The experiences from such processes are described in the article, showing that context and situations matters a lot for the outcomes. While it is good  for the participating actors to learn about the system, it is not evident that this knowledge can be linked to actual changes.

The authors do propose ideas on why this is the case, but fail to see that their framework ( framing of features) as such may not cover the essentials needed to understand the problems and opportunities for change.
Point of Strength
The discussion on second order learning and on the possible uses of monitoring and evaluation as learning tools as opportunities for systems innovation is important for any analysis of systems where social relations are of importance. It is a worthwhile read, but recommended to read Ray Ison´s ideas on systems framing in parallell.